Series finds fresh insight in OJ case

By Hank Stuever

Anthology deftly revisits old news in a topical contribution to ongoing conversation about policing and race.
Cuba Gooding Jnr as O.J. Simpson. Photo / FX
Cuba Gooding Jnr as O.J. Simpson. Photo / FX

Here's a strange blessing for our times: May you live long enough to see a sensationally overblown news event that you can still vividly recall turned into a very good and even powerfully thoughtful TV miniseries a couple of decades later.

For, as creator Ryan Murphy and his collaborators on FX's masterful The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story are quick to remind us old fogies, many viewers will be coming to this material fresh.

American Crime Story begins today on Soho from a square-one approach, assuming that anyone under 30 is only vaguely aware that, once upon a time in the dial-up modem days, a retired football star was arrested and charged with murdering his ex-wife and a restaurant employee with whom she was casually acquainted.

It happened in June 1994, and by the time of OJ Simpson's acquittal 16 months later (oops, spoiler alert), American culture had unwittingly but necessarily entered a new kind of conversation about race, justice and media - a conversation that remains an important precursor to the #BlackLivesMatter era.

It's easy for some of us to regard the Simpson saga as a spent narrative, picked apart and talked to death, but American Crime Story makes a convincing case that now is a perfect time to turn the story into a piece of topical art. The People v. OJ Simpson isn't flawless, and probably won't stand up to the sort of factual scrutiny that still swirls around its subject matter, but it is ambitiously imagined, surprisingly responsible and practically unerring in tone and pace.

There are stumbles, sure - primarily the decision to cast Cuba Gooding jnr as Simpson. Gooding is a talented actor who nevertheless lacks the physical and symbolic heft and presence of the fallen hero. Gooding has to tamp down his usual energy to play a sullen and helplessly egocentric man known to friends as Juice. Six episodes in, the viewer will probably have accepted the other actors as their real-life counterparts - but not Gooding.

David Schwimmer is Robert Kardashian and John Travolta is Robert Shapiro in the series. Photo / FX
David Schwimmer is Robert Kardashian and John Travolta is Robert Shapiro in the series. Photo / FX

But perhaps that's not as crucial as it seems, since The People v. OJ Simpson treats its star defendant (as well as the status of his guilt or innocence) as a secondary concern. From its first few scenes, the series announces itself as more than just a melodramatic exercise in stunt-casting and campy revision.

Although The People v. OJ Simpson has 10 episodes with which to allow the saga some sprawl, it's clear that theme and arc are perhaps more important than making sure every twist and turn in the story of record are covered.

The series steadily ruminates on the subject of fame itself, as Simpson's B-list celebrity status subsumes his acquaintances, defence attorneys, the prosecutors, family members of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, witnesses, reporters, jury members and court personnel. (Even Judge Lance Ito, played by Kenneth Choi, falls prey to the trial's allure.)

This take on OJ is fully committed to the idea that context is everything.

Boy, is it ever. The real attraction in this story was always the legal manoeuvrings, which make even more sense with a couple decades of hindsight. John Travolta has a ball playing Robert Shapiro, the vainglorious attorney who wisely senses that mistakes by LA police and prosecutors have opened a window into the flammable subject of race. Is it possible, Shapiro wonders, to portray his client, who has for all appearances assiduously avoided identifying with African-Americans, as a victim of discrimination?

Enter the late legendary defence attorney Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance, in a knockout performance), who takes that bet and wrests control from Shapiro - and everyone else.

Sometimes good television can make time travel seem almost possible. If you lived it the first go-around, you'll probably be amazed at how The People v. OJ Simpson sucks you right back in. And if this is all new to you (or like the hook in some old pop tune you can't quite identify), then perhaps you'll take to the social networks and start the debate all over again, with new insight and perspective. Given the degree to which it left so many feeling outraged or misunderstood, this story could use some fresh meaning.

TV profile

Who: Cuba Gooding jnr in the title role

What: The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story

When and where: Tonight, SoHo

- Washington Post

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf03 at 04 Dec 2016 21:23:39 Processing Time: 418ms